Relationship Management: Why, Who, & How

December 19, 2019 11:07 am || || Categorized in:


Why manage relationships in project teams?

According to, $122MM per $1B invested in the US was wasted due to the failure of project performance1. Many will attest project success to project management software, spreadsheets, communication tools, or well-defined goals and objectives. Focus is often on the analytical and logical tools since projects are inherently made of deadlines, costs, and tracking. These tools are developed, customized, and used by people in combination with their non-analytical and non-logical human factors.

Zachary Wong, an instructor of human factors and team dynamics at UC Berkeley Extension and accomplished team leader of high performing teams for 30 years, reminds us that “human factors are embodied” in the “three key elements required to run a successful” project team: content, process, and behavior2. The team must develop and identify the objectives and goals (content). Members must develop and implement the appropriate tools and procedures to ensure a successful execution (process). The team must communicate, collaborate, and behave synergistically to perform effectively (behavior).

We are all complex human beings. Thoughts, behaviors, and inter-relationships affect the dynamics of our teams and how we approach work.

  • Engaged employees perform better
    According to the 2018 Gallup Poll, only 35% of employees are engaged in their work and workplace, while 13% are actively disengaged. The remaining 53% are “generally satisfied but are not cognitively and emotionally connected,” meaning that “they will usually show up to work and do the minimum required but will quickly leave their company for a slightly better offer.”3 Managing relationships with the 53% who may be in your project team can increase their participation and improve their performance. It may also ensure that they stay with the company through your project lifecycle, thus eliminating delays due to additional onboarding and training new team members.

  • Team cohesion
    Actively managing the relationship means being mindful of the challenges and successes of the other person(s) within the context of the project or in other areas of their life that may affect the dynamics of the team or their performance. Schedule changes to accommodate sickness or other supporting activities that communicate empathy nurtures emotional connections between individuals. Providing support outside of project obligations nurtures stronger cohesion within the project.
  • Competing demands
    Each of us has multiple projects and roles in our lives, thus have competing demands for our limited time. We constantly prioritize our tasks and negotiate the quality and duration of our performance.  Not to mention, diverting our attention to the plethora of distractions that are available to us through our cell phones and the internet. Entrepreneur Shaun Buck points out that we have “an infinite number of options to choose from.” 4 While the article is specific to marketing, the principles apply to the engagement of your stakeholders. Managing the relationship maintains their attention to your project.


Who to manage?

Project managers should manage their relationships with all stakeholders. Stakeholders are defined by Project Management Institute (PMI) to be an “individual, group, or organization who may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project.”5  However, due to time constraints, the quality and time investments in these relationships must be prioritized and strategized through the project lifecycle.

  • Team Members 
    Members are usually task executors and frequent decision-makers. Communication strategies should be designed to support optimal performance, including understanding the preferred form of communication and the optimal time of day for each person.
  • External Contractors/Vendors
    Since they are not beholden to your organization, it is critical to manage external stakeholders to ensure that communication is expedited effectively when needed. Developing relationships with 2-3 contacts and nurturing them beyond the transactional interaction can ensure better outcomes such as better technical support and timely deliveries.
  • Decision Makers and Influencers
    Most of this group will consist of senior management and external or internal sponsors. Interaction with these stakeholders can be minimal and mainly focused on the project. They can be your strongest advocates or harshest judges. It is best practice to identify and categorize each person’s influence and decision-making power. Priority and proper communication must be crafted for high influencers and decision-makers. Comprehensive information and presentation of decision factors should be given to low influence, decision-makers. Timely and on-demand information must be provided for influencers only. Minimal time can be given to the low influencers and non-decision makers.


How to Manage?

Per positive communication coach Dr. Alan Zimmerman, “relationship management is all about your interpersonal communication skills.”6 It’s the ability to “inspire and influence” and “ability to communicate and build bonds.”6 It’s not about manipulation and control.

There are many ways to manage relationships and will depend on the people involved, the objectives, and, more importantly, the circumstances. Harvard Business Review provides articles appropriate for various business relationships, and The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley provides scientific-based evidence of the benefits of positive relationships.

In general, I keep these in mind:

  • Honesty and respectfulness
    Trust is the basis of any relationship. While quick trust can be established due to a common goal, it is shallow. Deep trust is earned over time by reliably being honest and authentic. Professor and social scientist, Brené Brown, recommends acting “from a place of integrity and encouragement” to inspire others to do the same7. More investment of time and energy should be spent on relationships and completion of objectives, rather than deciphering hidden intentions and mitigating the risks of assumptions.
  • Consistency
    Trust builds when reality meets expectations with consistency. Human beings positively react to expected behaviors and rely heavily on patterns to make complex decisions. For project team related e-mails and documents, I create templates and formats that maintain a “brand” for the project. Receivers are quickly cued into the referred project and able to scan for pertinent information with an established format.

    Establishing behavior patterns for work is also important. Maintain a no response to e-mails outside of office hours if this is a culture that you want to uphold for your team. Keep in mind, you will have to assess the outlier “emergencies” to respond to since requestors have varying levels of “emergencies.”

  • Beyond the project
    As mentioned before, people are more than the roles they are assigned to at work. They are parents, children, part-time soccer coach, girl scout troop mom, puppy owner, etc. Each person is more than their job title, and their uniqueness can be a great asset to the project and the workplace. Managing the relationship means getting to know the other person beyond the commonality of the workplace by understanding their motivation, their challenges, and partnering a win-win with both parties’ objectives.

In his book, How to Live a Good Life, Jonathan Fields reminds us that we are “innately social beasts, born to be with others” and “when we are right with others, in the right way…our capacity to flourish and grow and engage with life and joy, expands.”8

Relationship Management is creating and building connections with others. As a Project Manager in Life Sciences Research, I have a community of people who love science and leverage it for the good of humanity. The work is strenuous, and the hours are long. The collaborative achievements are gestalt and impactful in developing innovative therapies.


So, how can relationship management improve your project?

Lab technicians were needed for the upstream production of a gene therapy organization’s first pre-clinical Toxicology Material in a newly built BioSafety Lab 2/3 Pilot Manufacturing facility. Considering the high business and production risk, four staff members from the research team were internally recruited.  All have been with the company for over six months and competent in their technical skills.


  1. Research staff members are unfamiliar with GMP regulations and requirements.
  2. Research staff members were unhappy with the assignment change.
  3. Project was initiated when most production processes were still in development. Thus, changes and engineering runs will have to be carefully coordinated. Feedback during runs will be needed from the team.
  4. Organization is a start-up with a very limited contingency fund for failure.
  5. Project manager and team have had little interaction up to this point.

Project Manager’s strategy for success with team members:

While senior management dictated the project team, most of the project success can only be assured with the buy-in and performance of its members. Trust had to be built, and relationships needed to be formed. Before scheduling and developing project expectations, input was requested from team members regarding their concerns. Open communication was encouraged during meetings and status check-ins.

There are other leadership approaches that the PM could have chosen, such as an autocratic or transactional approach. The PM did lobby for bonuses with project completion but did not fully rely on this incentive for team motivation. She opted for the strategy that would have longer-term benefits and could sustain the team through challenges: Relationship management and team empowerment.


The result:

Newly assigned production technicians felt that their efforts were contributing to the value of the organization. The objective was moving the research forward into the realm of reality. While they may have a temporary loss of their autonomy, their work became part of the IND (Investigational New Drug) submitted to the FDA.

The team endured several unforeseen challenges. Many risks had to be mitigated, and unknown risks had to be dealt with. Due to team cohesion with team members and executive sponsors, the project was completed within schedule and budget.


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About the Author:

Melissa Austin

Melissa is a team-focused Life Sciences and Pharmaceutical Project/ Program Manager harnessing the strengths of stakeholders and resources, leveraging team dynamics into completion of quality driven projects within constraints. She has 20+ years of lab bench work and operations management in various phases of drug development. Melissa’s track record of strategic planning often reducing project duration and material cost up to 20%.



  1. Ray Lim, 18Sept2018,,, accessed 15Nov2019
  2. Zachary Wong, HB Printing 2007, Human Factors in Project Management
  3. Jim Harter, August 26 2018, Economy Gallup News
  4. Shaun Buck 3Aug2017, Marketing, , accessed 15Nov2019
  5. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) 5th edition, Project Management Institute 2013
  6. Alan Zimmerman, Relationship Management: The fourth pillar of emotional intelligence, accessed 15Nov2019
  7. Brene Brown, Random House 2018, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts
  8. Jonathan Fields, Hay House Inc 2016, How to Live a Good Life